Mountains, Deserts, and Enchanting Cities

I started my trip in MARRAKECH, it had always been high on my list.  When I arrived it seemed a bit intimidating, an overwhelmingly crowded place full of people and touts waiting for new tourists to get off the bus from the airport to lead them to their preferred Riads.  For some reason I was doubting the location that had given for my hotel and decided to ask for directions; of course a shop owner led me to the wrong place.  Somehow I ended up going deeper into the Medina’s narrow streets when my hotel was in fact just outside of these.  I decided to follow the map and find the hotel on my own. I received help from a restaurant owner that confirmed the location of the Koutoubia Riad where I met Hassan.  Hassan invited me to the terrace for some delicious but extremely sweet tea.  The first one of many that I would have there.  The locals call it the “Berber Whiskey”, a very strong tea mixed with lots of sugar to make it bearable to drink.  Hassan explained all of my options to visit Marrakech, the nearby mountains, and the Sahara.  I wanted to take things easy for a few days so I opted for a simple 3 day/2 night tour to get a taste of everything.  I would decide afterwards where I would stay the rest of my three weeks in Morocco.  My recommendation for travelers right off the bat is that if you are traveling in pairs or in groups, rent a car and drive around the country.  The roads are well maintained and easy to navigate.  You can find accommodation along the way and people are willing to help everywhere.  It is definitely good to speak French here, if you don’t speak it, try to learn a few basic phrases.  A lot of people also speak Arabic and they seem to like it when you use it at least to say hello and thank you.  The Moroccans are quite traditional and religious so I would recommend for women to dress conservatively.
The tour that I embarked on for the next three days is the traditional one that is offered to all tourists from Marrakech.  It is a road trip to Merzouga driving through the Atlas mountains via the town of Ouarzazate, visiting the Dades Valley, Dades Gorge, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aït Benhaddou kasbah, the Todra Gorge, the Dades River to Boumalne, and finishing with a camel ride to Erg Chebbi (Dunes).  The latter is a wonderful dessert camp where they cook a traditional Berber meal under the stars and play drums around a bon fire on the sand.
Aït Benhaddou kasbah was definitely a highlight, a beautiful Berber ancient city from the 11th century, all built in clay, where four merchant families still live.  It was great to walk around its narrow streets and meet some of the artisans, specially the carpet makers.
IMG_0877 fullsizeoutput_7cb fullsizeoutput_7c6 fullsizeoutput_7d6 IMG_0937IMG_1011I came back to Marrakech to enjoy a couple of days of site-seeing.  I was joined by my new friend Paul from the US whom I had met during the tour.  We walked around this enchanting city visiting many of the recommended attractions like the Bahia Palace, Dar Si Said Museum, the famous Souks, watching the performances around the Jamma El Fna Square.  I switched to the Cecil Hotel right on the square to be closer to the action; which was super clean, had corteous staff, and included a great breakfast.  We happened to be in the city during the International Film Festival so the city was pretty packed and lively.
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This town offered the most authentic experience to appreciate the kindness and hospitality of the good people of Morocco.  I tagged along my friend Paul’s trip to Taroudant; which is a small town a few hours southwest of Marrakech.  After doing all of the “touristy” stuff the first few days I was ready for a different kind of experience in Morocco.  We caught a bus to Agadir and then a very uncomfortable ride on a crowded grand taxi (which was in fact not grand) to Taroudant.  We decided to get a nice apartment at Dar Fatima where we could each have our own room for about US$20 a night per person.  It was the perfect place in the perfect little town.  This place was definitely less touristy (than the others previously visited), had a smaller souk, lots of shops, and a nice little square to sit at one of the cafes and watch people go by.  I noticed there were a lot of men everywhere, not only sitting in groups in the cafes but also gathering outside in the town square to listen to music, or watch someone perform something.  We enjoyed buying cheap meals (for about US$2 each) and bringing them back to the house to eat while we watched tv.  It was great!  We rented bikes to go see some places outside of town.  We headed north with the goal of reaching the mountains that we could see in the near horizon but we ended up diverting to enter a small town that Paul wanted to visit.  We rode through what seemed to be a desserted town, only seeing a couple of farmers.  Suddenly a woman came out of her house and greeted us from afar waving her hand.  I got closer and she signaled us to come in for some tea so we did.  The lady did not speak any English but she was super excited to see us and have us over at her house.  My guess is that this lady had never seen foreigners before, at least not in her town.  We came into a large open courtyard where she invited us to sit while she made the tea.  We saw that she was cleaning stones out of a bowl of grains so we decided to help her.  She was very giggly and nice.  Some of her neighbors came in to meet us.  One of the women spoke a little English so she helped translate for us.  The lady of the house asked if we would want to stay for lunch and so we did.  She made us some delicious egg omelets with tomatoes and onions; which we ate with some of the local bread.  We immediately took out the food that we had brought with us so we could share with the ladies- some nuts and fruit.  One of the neighbors asked if she could do henna on my arms and I accepted.  We were later invited on a tour around the neighboring houses, our translator showed us her house and offered us some coffee.  Unfortunately time flew by and before we knew it, it was close to sunset so we had to get going before it got dark.  All the ladies came out on the streets to see us off.  This was a really great and authentic experience with local people that we would’ve never experienced if it wasn’t for Paul wanting to veer off the main road.  This experience reminded me to go with the flow and accept things as they come.  Some of the best experiences of this trip have been the ones that I never planned and just happened spontaneously.
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I said bye to Paul and headed to the town of Zagora.  I quickly made a new friend on the bus, Kevin, whom I continued to travel with.  He didn’t have a place to stay so I invited him to come to my hotel Karim Sahara to check if they had a dorm room there.  As soon as we arrived, they began to sell us on a tour to the Sahara; which is what this town is known for; it is the base for trips into the desert.  We decided to head to M’hamid on our own and see if we could find a tour to the Sahara from there; which would be cheaper.  Before leaving Zagora we visited a traditional Jewish Kazbah and a Muslim cooperative where they restored doors with bones, and melted silver.
This was very high on my list of places to see on this trip.  I didn’t only want to make it to the Sahara but most importantly I wanted to do a multi-day trip; which included camping, enjoying a fire under the stars, and climbing the dunes.  Kevin and I took a grand taxi to our hotel Dar Sahara in M’hamid to plan our trip.  We booked 4 days/3 nights tour to the Erg Chigaga Dunes.  Here is a summary of our trip:
Day 1- M’hamid to Sidinajee- 14km.
We walked for 3 hours, camels following with gear as they were pulled by Barak. Ali is the main guide who speaks english and french. At the beginning of our trek, we stopped by the company’s regular luxury camp for some tea and bread.  We continued with the trek shortly after and reached the small dunes in sidinajee as the wind picked up. The sand hovered over the dunes as a thin veil.  We walked toward the sun and it was hot but the cool wind gave us relief.   We finally reached our camp for the night and Barak let the camels, Lashga and Lahmami, rest after taking the loads off their backs.  They are let free but with their back legs tied together so they can go find their own food but not go very far into the dessert.  We put up the tent, put blankets on the floor and a couple of mattresses, and boiled some tea.  Ali takes out a big block of sugar, the most important ingredient to make the berber whiskey or tea drinkable since it is so bitter. They prepare a berber omelette for lunch. Both Ali and Barak grew up as nomads in the dessert. After sunset we found a group of camels that nomads let feed for three to four days and then they go find them again. Ali mentioned that just behind our camp was the border with Algeria.  That night after dinner, Ali went to sleep outside, Barak set up a tent far away from us, and Kevin and I took the tent where all the supplies and food were stored.  It was spacy, comfortable, and warm enough for the night.  We slept well.

barak inside the tent offers us tea

Day 2- we walked 22km in 6.5 hours to Erg Zahar, we had crazy moments, we spoke about our private lives, relationships, spoke to the camels, shared candybars, oranges, apples. We didn’t take enough food or water for our long trek so we got a bit delirious. We played music, sang, talked, and the time passed. We finally made it to the dunes in the mid hot afternoon. It was a very windy day so we had to stay about 20 min away from the big dunes where we had planned to stay. We needed to find shade from the trees in the area. We offloaded the camels, had some food, and took a nap to recharge batteries for the sunset hike. I asked Ali if I could trek in the dunes on my own for a while. I wanted to experience the Sahara in peace. He agreed as long as I met Kevin, and a couple that was staying nearby with their guide, on top of the dune. After a long trek up the steep dunes, we enjoyed an amazing sunset at the top. It was incredible to see the sea of dunes below us. It was an experience and a sight that I will never forget. When we made it back to camp, Ali had made a nice fire, some soup, and Barak was ice fire, soup, and Barak was making bread the traditional Berber way. He was preparing the dough and placed it on the sand, covered it with a thin layer of sand, and then placed the hot coals right on top. The nomads’ way of baking in the dessert.

baking in the sand

IMG_1646 fullsizeoutput_747IMG_1895IMG_1665Day 3-18km or 5 hours, after sunrise on the dunes and a yummy breakfast we walked through the dessert and the valley of Draa where we found rocks and even remnants of the ocean, more vegetation and the well where camels drank and Kevin took a shower. We stopped for a picnic by a big area that looked like a dry river bed.  It was a relaxing and beautiful day.  We were just starting to get comfortable with the nomad life but unfortunately this would be our last night in the dessert.
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Day 4- We end the trip. After an amazing sunrise we took turns riding camels.  It was our day to ride the camels since we had eaten most of the food and the camels were a lot lighter and could handle our weight.  We had another amazing day going through the small dunes, and an oasis.  It was a perfect opportunity to reflect on the trip and the experience we had just lived through.
At the end of the trip it was time to pay.  We arrived back to the Dar Sahara camp to spend another night before going back to Marrakech the next day.  There was no ATM machine in town so we were not able to pay for the entire trip.  The manager had one of the h0tel workers travel with us on the bus back to Zagora.  This is where we were to get off the bus and get cash from the nearest ATM, located right next to the bus station.  Unfortunately the ATM was not working so we decided to try another one a bit further down the street.  We had advised the driver about having to use the ATM and to please give us 15 minutes.  Our cards did not work on the second ATM and before I knew it, Kevin had started running further down the main road trying to reach another ATM on the other end of town.  When I caught up to him I tried the ATM and luckily it worked for me but unfortunately the bus decided to take off without us.  It just drove fast through the only road in town without even trying to honk to get our attention.   We went to the CTM office (the bus company) in town where we asked to get help with getting our bags back.  The man at the reception said that he had called the driver and that they would leave the bags in Ouazarzate, the next town where the bus would make a stop.  The workers at the Zagora office did not want to help us get on another bus for free, they wanted us to pay for another ticket to Marrakech.  We ended up taking a grand taxi with other passengers (which only leave once they are completely full) to the CTM office in Ouazarzate.  Once we got there they told us that our bags were not there.  Again the people at the reception did not want to help us get on another bus to Marrakech for free.  They figured we should buy another ticket, even though we had been left behind by the bus driver in Zagora.  They didn’t want to recognize their mistake or bad service.  I asked them if they were on trip Advisor and they said yes so I told them that I would give them a fair review and tell everyone in the traveling community exactly what had happened.  Kevin wanted to try another bus company to buy a new ticket but I still did not want to give up on getting seats on the next CTM bus for free.  The CTM manager finally came out and decided to help us.  Once the manager got involved everyones’ attitudes at the reception changed.  They started treating us very professionally and with respect.  They also put us on the next bus for free and called the office in Marrakech to tell them to hold our bags once they arrived.

inside the grand taxi
sign for Timbuktu, only 52 days to reach by camel from here

I spent another night in Marrkech where I got to walk around the Medina souks, enjoy the madness on the main square again seeing the henna ladies, monkeys, squirrels, snake charmers, men playing drums, fortune tellers, juice vendors, etc.  It was enchanting, annoying, sad, beautiful, all at the same time.  All of the senses are awakened in this place.  The Medina is incredible.
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I found the only agency in town (it seems) to give an authentic experience in the Atlas, a different part than the places where they usually take tourists.  I met my guide early the next morning to begin the journey.  We took a taxi to Lakrab and then from there we took a petit taxi to Sidi Fatima.  My guide and I began the hike up the mountain, saw beautiful views of the river down in the valley, goats all around, and farmers.  We met Hussaine on his donkey who invited us to his house for lunch. About 300m later we reached the top of mountain where we admired the incredible views of the surrounding peaks.  At Hussaine’s house we sit up on the terrace to continue to enjoy the views and have lunch.  All the children stopped to say hello and stare from the streets below.  I don’t think some of them had seen many tourists before, they seemed very curious and surprised.
Unfortunately things got a bit uncomfortable during a conversation with the guide.  What began as small talk to try to build a friendship ended up being an interview about my choice of life, why I was traveling around the world, how he thought that my life had no purpose since I was not married and had no children.  He even asked “what would happen if every woman in the world was like you?!”.  At one point I tried to explain that we were from different cultures and also had different priorities in life.  He interrupted and said “culture?!  What culture?!  You don’t have any culture.  In your country you get divorced, you travel, how is that culture?!”  It was impossible to have a discussion with the guide without him getting offended or defensive somehow so I just let it go.  For the rest of the time he kept hiking ahead of me and not talking much to me.  I didn’t let him ruin my experience so I decided to hike on my own and ignore his bad attitude.
After a few hours we finally reached the village where we would spend the night.  We entered a home occupied by a big family of nine.  We were ushered into the social room to sit around the fire and drink tea while we waited for dinner to be made.  All the women were occupied in the kitchen making dinner while the men tended to the fire. The room where fire burns filled up with smoke so much that my eyes were burning; it was very hard to breathe so I had to go into the kitchen; which had a big open window to get some fresh air.  The women were extremely shy and did not want to talk much plus their English was very limited.  The grandchildren kept me entertained as they played around me and stared at me all the time.  For dinner we had couscous made in the traditional Tajine.  It took about three hours to make and it was delicious!  During this time I saw the women in the kitchen making the dough, steaming it, massaging it, rolling it, etc.  They never ate with us, I only ate with the men.  I asked if they would join us and my guide replied that they always stay in the kitchen because “they are shy”.
fullsizeoutput_6e2fullsizeoutput_6d2 fullsizeoutput_6f0 fullsizeoutput_6e8 fullsizeoutput_715I got my own room up on the terrace with amazing views of the mountains and of the stary sky.  I had a great night sleep.  The hike back down the mountain and around to complete the loop was incredible. We were fortunate that the heavy rains did not begin until we were almost done with the trek but we still managed to get soaked.  We warned up by a tajine tray fire in a restaurant by the river as we ate our delicious chicken and vegetable tajine.
I left Marrakech to go to Fes by train; which took about eight hours. I just showed up at the station one hour before departure, and bought a ticket with no prior reservation. I took second class to do some people watching and save some money.
Haled from the Kasr Nadar Riad picked me up from where the taxi dropped me off.  We walked in the 1200 year old Medina through a bunch of different alleys until we reached the riad.  It was a pretty amazing place.  After some much needed rest overnight, I joined Asya and two other girls from Korea that were staying at the Riad for a guided tour of the main highlights of the Medina and the city borders.
fullsizeoutput_6d8 IMG_2201The best part of the tour was visiting one of the tanneries; a wonderful site of ancient craftmaship that has been present for thousands of years, and in Fes the tradition has remained the same for one thousand years.  The process is incredible to watch, although I didn’t get to see all of the steps, I witnessed part of the drying of the animal hides, and the soaking of the skins in the natural color pools made of safron, poppies, and henna amongst others.   The place has a very distinctive smell, although on this particular day it was not as powerful as they say it typically is.  The stench is due to a mixture of limestone, pigeon poo, cow brain & urine, animal fats, fish oils, sulphuric acid and chromium salts used to remove all flesh and hair traces.
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I traveled to the city capital of Casablanca with my new friend Asya whom I had met at the Riad in Fes.  I only had a day in Casablanca so we decided to spend it seeing the highlight of the city; the beautiful architectural feat, the Hassan II mosque by the sea.  We spent the rest of our time getting pizza and going to the movies to watch Bridget Jones in French.  Sometimes you just need a break from your regular site-seeing routine!  Ha ha!
The mosque is an impressive modern architectural feat built in 1993 and designed by French architect Michel Pinseau .  It is the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world.  It is situated right on the ocean where over 100,000 worshippers can gather to pray.  All materials used to build the mosque like the marble, granite, plaster, and wood were obtained in Morocco.  Other materials like white granite, the chandeliers, and venetial glass came from Italy.
IMG_2298 fullsizeoutput_6b9 IMG_2342Morocco definitely impressed me with its natural beauty, its great food, and festive, colorful souks.  I would like to come back in the future to see more of the Sahara and the mountains.


1 thought on “Mountains, Deserts, and Enchanting Cities

  1. You get to travel to some of the most beautiful places on earth! I love how you described Morocco, it’s exactly how I imagine it would be -a country preserved in time. Thanks for sharing!

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